Whether you aspire to become a serious punter or simply have a flutter for the enjoyment of the sport, it all boils down to two pivotal points – at least in my view:
- The desire to win money.
- Losing money isn’t fun.
Personally, I have been on a long journey when it comes to betting in general, particularly when it comes to betting on horses. I tested and trialed many ideas, systems and angles – won some, lost some more – be it laying, trading, naive attempts of building automated betting models as well as all the way back to conducting the good old-fashioned form study.
In the end all of that can be successful. It depends on the type of person, what you prefer, what suits your own style and mentality.
These days I’m using a hybrid method: data based as an initial selection step – uncover specific circumstances on any given day which then initiate action to dig deeper, i.e. put my own analysis on top of it. It took years to come to this point – a point where it all clicks, works and is profitable.
While the approach may change again (there’s no standing still in betting = what works today may be obsolete tomorrow) what stays with me are a simple rules that act as a guide of how to approach betting on horses.
These rules are obviously highly subjective in their significance and impact. For someone else they may seem trivial, maybe controversial or even wrong. Nonetheless, I imagine that following these rules can help anyone to be a more successful punter in the long run, and with that enhancing the enjoyment of “the game”.
#1: No Bet? No Problem.
The first rule is one about discouraging from the actual act of betting. It’s the most important rule for the simple fact that you’re usually investing your hard earned money when betting. Earning money is far more difficult than losing it in a matter of minutes in the 4.45pm class 5 Handicap at Wolverhampton.
In our day and age bets can be made as easily and swiftly as the simple touch on the screen of a mobile phone. It’s the fastest way of losing money. Not betting means not losing money. Obviously!
What we really want, though, is to maximise our chance of winning when finally decided on a bet. Yet, more often than not, I argue, it’s about being prudent and working along the lines of “letting go” and not having a bet.
To illustrate what I mean let’s imagine the following scenario: most likely we all have been there, studying a race for a significant amount of time – “putting in the effort”, analysing video footage and making plenty of notes and whatever else you do to work through a race.
What’s the result after all the hard work? More often than not you likely won’t have a strong feeling about any horse in the race. You haven’t discovered any value opportunity at all! Yes, you may ‘fancy’ a horse – simply because you think “he’ll run well”. The horse, possibly a 5/1 chance, seems like a “fair price”. There is an obvious urge:
“Hey! I’ve done all the work, I want my reward: a bet!”
From my experience there can be this overarching feeling of “what if the horse wins and I’m not on?!”. We all know this feeling if this horse we somewhat fancied, but didn’t back because we didn’t believe there was enough juice in the price, crosses the line in first place. Crap feeling. It hurts. A missed opportunity?!
Perhaps the next time you gonna follow your “gut instinct”, you back the fancies you didn’t identify as value but feel they should run well. A winner is a winner after all and sure enough some will win. But what’s the chance those winners are going to be offsetting the losing bets in ROI terms in the long run? That’s the value question that is the fundamental aspect of understanding how profitable betting works.
I firmly believe once you subscribe to this sort of mentality – following the gut feeling – as described above, it’s game over.
When betting on horses on a day to day basis one encounters these type of scenarios numerous times. You put in the time and effort but at the end you’ve got no bet to show for all the work. How annoying! However, fact is: you haven’t lost any money….. yet. And that is a good thing. Because you really want to invest your money when you truly have identified a proper value opportunity.
Also: even if not having a bet as the outcome of analysing a race, it may still have been time well spent: you may have learned something about some of the horses in the race for future studies or possibly uncovered an interesting trend to monitor moving forward.
Put simply: it’s not always lost time only because the effort didn’t result in the desired outcome of finding a bet. The opposite is true. No bet? No Problem.
#2: Let Go of Emotions.
This rule links back to rule #1. And it’s easier said than done. As in the example outlined above: seeking the reward for an hour of studying a race – having a bet – despite the outcome of the analysis saying one shouldn’t have a bet, is seriously influenced by our emotions and feelings.
It’s a natural human reaction to be seeking a reward for work (having a burger or ice cream post gym, anyone?). You have to learn to let go, though. Stick with the objective analysis you’ve already completed and its corresponding result: no bet.
What can help in this type of situation: if you fancy one or two horses in a race and feel the urge to reward your work with a bet, even though your objective analysis comes to the conclusion that the odds aren’t good enough, simply writing down the pro’s and con’s for or against the horse side by side does help me. Having the cold, hard facts written down on a paper right in front of us can take the emotions out of the equation.
Emotions come into play in other situations as well. If things go well or if things go badly. We may get enthusiastic. Euphoric. Let’s strike while the iron is hot. Or: disappointment. The feeling of depletion. Anger. It’s the jockey’s fault. Let’s chase the losses. A sudden change in a method proven over time…..
Emotions cloud our mind. They cloud our objective decision-making skills. Fact. Therefore: never get too high and never get too low. You can be happy if your work pays off and you can be disappointed if the long analysis you did and the great value horse you identified didn’t get the luck in running. But it should never lead to subsequent decisions based on these emotions.
A good piece worth reading in this context is: How I Learned to Love Variance
#3: Think Big Picture.
Horses have bad days, jockeys make mistakes and variance is the reason for winning- and losing runs alike. The only thing that stays constant: if you find value bets – i.e. the horse has a better % chance of winning the race than the odds suggest – you will be a winner in the long run.
In that sense it is important to see the bigger picture: the race you lost because Jamie Spencer was sitting and suffering on the well-backed favourite at the back of the field and got his mount out too late…. it’s only a single race.
In the context of the hundreds of other races you’re betting o this sort of “bad luck” will be neglectable and is going to be offset by those times where you have the eventual winner on your side, even though he wasn’t the best horse in the race, perhaps because the best horse was boxed in and made a run too late as the jockey was overconfident, while your lad got a clean run from the front in a slowly run race, hence you’ve been the “lucky one”.
In the long run this one race won’t matter. It won’t matter because if your bets are consistently value bets, if you got an edge, if you see something others don’t see, and if you – leaving emotions out – keep following whatever method you have to identify the value, you won’t need luck today to be a winner tomorrow.
Understand this and it becomes much easier to see the one race in context of the bigger picture. Which ultimately helps to control emotions and feelings, hence is vital for making the level-headed decisions.
#4: Follow the Concept of Value.
What is this ominous value in betting we hear so often referred to by experts, jockeys and punters? Google says this:
“A value bet is the one where you believe the chances of one team (or horse) winning are better than the odds suggest and all you need to do is to take advantage of the situation.”
I love the last part. As if it would be that easy….. of course it isn’t. The concept of value works different for different people. However the essence of it – you know your horse has a better chance of winning than the layers’ assessment – will remain a constant.
It’s vital and is the one key question you need to ask yourself before backing a horse: is it value? If the answer is “No” or “not sure” then move on, refer to rule #1 and #2, there’s nothing to see here. It has to be a resounding “Yes” for a confident selection – or as I call it: “quality bet”. Otherwise: no bet? No problem.
Some people might go into more detail. They make a 100% book and assign % chances to each horse which then translates into odds. In its most simple form: if you assign a 10% chance to a horse that translates into fair odds of 9/1. If a bookie offers 10/1 you’ve got a value bet.
In theory, if you always back horses that have a better chance of winning than the odds offered, you will make a certain profit long-term. It’s the one thing a successful punter can’t compromise on.
How punters come to the conclusion of identifying value is a personal choice and responsibility. And obviously there are a few more nuances to it than my simple explanation. Nonetheless, what holds true: finding value is crucial.
A good read if you want to dig deeper on this topic: What is a Value bet?
#5: Bet Win Only.
Obviously this is highly subjective. But it is likely, and studies have shown the same, that if punters back their selections “win only” they will win more in the long run. One could also argue: if you didn’t believe strongly enough that your horse has a better chance of winning than the odds suggest – even if it is a 20/1 shot – why bother backing the horse anyway?
Place terms are often poor, they favour the bookie. Keep in mind even a 9/1 “each-way chance” – a relevant example because this is often the cut-off price for punters as their confidence in win-only dwindles and they feel it’s big enough a price for a decent place return – will only place around one in four times (~7% win). Not exactly ‘value material’, particularly in races with 1/5 place terms.
Even if you are decent at identifying so called “each-way value”, you’ll struggle to turn this into sizable profits long term – I believe.
Now, you can make exceptions to the rule: put simply, some people will be better suited to each-way backing due to the nature of their psychology. Even if in an ideal world we fully eliminate emotions and feelings, the reality is a different one. We’re humans after all.
Some punters simply can’t stand losing, let alone long losing runs – which tend to be inevitable if you back win-only.
Each-Way betting offers the opportunity for tasting success on a more regular basis. There are professional punters who know full well they would make more money if they’d go win-only all the time. But if they would do so their mental state would prevent them from being successful and making confident selections day in day out.
There are also some other reasons to consider each/way betting once in a while, as outlined in this excellent piece by Simon Rowlands.
With that in mind, it is not to say you can’t be profitable backing each-way. But it is much easier in the long run to go win-only – if you can be endure losing runs. It’s certainly not for me, although I still have the occasional each/way bet, regardless.
Most will agree, though: keep your fingers off multi-bets, parlays and the likes. You’re gonna be the bookies best friend if you’re handing in a “Lucky 15” every Saturday.
Yes, the promise of a massive payout is sexy. In truth, you’re hardly ever win one of these bets, if ever! The value on these multiples is non-existent. It’s heavily skewed toward the bookmaker. Sure, some folks get lucky. But that’s it: luck. Some people get lucky in the lottery. Luck isn’t what influences successful long-term betting.
“But it’s fun!”. Some may say. And it’s probably true: having a Lucky 15 running on a Saturday through the ITV card can be fun. But only until one sees the first two selections finishing tailed off. It’s the moment when reality bites: losing isn’t fun. Never.
#Bonus – Put in the Effort.
Racing is an immensely complex sport. So many parameters to consider. So much information available through many different resources. You have to make sense of it and find a way to put the puzzle together in a way it works for the individual.
Consistency breeds success (not only in betting). This requires some level of (minimum) effort that goes beyond checking the left-hand column of the racecard and reading the spotlight comments.
Questions I consider asking regularly: what is it that you do, you know and see that others don’t do, know and see? What is your niche? How do you get to a point where you can confidently make decisions on the value of a specific horse and its price in a given race?
To get there requires effort. One could say it requires work. Doesn’t sound like fun? Well, we love horses. We love racing. If that wouldn’t be the case we’d find it difficult to put in the effort – it would feel like “real work”.
I know if I put in the effort it feels like work. Yet this is work I do enjoy, in fact. Because I do love racing. And I do love working through the form book, through the stats and video clips, figuring out the value prices, solving the puzzle and finding winners…. and having a positive ROI to show for all the effort in the long run is the reward.
Without this enthusiasm for putting in the effort you’ve lost before even started.
Side Notes: a couple of thoughts I want to add – not specifically rules, more general guidance in addition to the Golden Rules that are important for me:
- Keep a Record: you will struggle to keep track of your P/L if not. You will also be able to identify where things work well for you. Is there a specific race – class, trip, course – where you’re consistently able to find value? Are there specific situations where you simply can’t get it right? Keeping records is paramount.
- Realistic Expectations: It’s unlikely you’ll get rich with your betting. But if you do it smartly you may earn a little extra cash that can pay for holidays, a new car or at least the pints and entrance fee to the race track. Something like 5-10% ROI is certainly attainable.
- Consistent Staking: Find the best method for your bank and betting style and stick with it. I use a flat stake to keep things simple. All I need to decide: do I believe so strongly in the chance of this horse that I want to invest? If so then I do want to be on with my full stake, regardless of price. I understand proportional staking may be the more profitable way to go long-term. But in the end it comes down to what suits ones personality best.
Recommended read: Choosing A Staking Method
- Avoid Odds-On Shots: value can be found in any price – even a 2/5 shot could be value. But let’s face it: the amount of races you have to win consistently to make a profit is high. Racing is a volatile sport. Things can go wrong quickly. Even odds-on shots win only about every second race. Backing all odds-on shots would result in a certain loss. Of course nobody does that. But you would have to be incredibly selective and a superb punter to turn it into a profit long term. It’s not for me. One saying resonates with me when it comes to odds-on shots: “you can’t buy money”.
There you have it: those are my golden rules of betting on horses. Obviously a lot of is deliberately kept simple. Further details need to be filled in by oneself.
The issue of “getting on” isn’t addressed, obviously. I’d argue being successful in the long run isn’t the challenge any longer thanks to all the resources available today. But account restrictions and premium charges make life difficult. That’s a different topic altogether, though.